The people have spoken. But what exactly they said is a question and whether anyone in power in Ukraine or Russia will take their wishes into account is yet another one.
Will it mean the breakup of Ukraine? Or finally a fierce response from the West and the central government in Kyiv? Will Donetsk and Luhansk become stand-alone states within Ukraine or be absorbed into Vladimir Putin's growing empire, just as the Russian president took Crimea in March?
On the morning after the hasty referendums on May 11, no one seemed to know the fate of the two oblasts that collectively make up 15 percent of Ukraine's population.
Separatist election officials reported 89 percent for seceding and 10 percent against doing so in Donetsk Oblast. In Luhansk Oblast, Oleksandr Malykhin, a separatist referendum official, reported that 96 percent of voters "supported federalization of the Luhansk region," adding that more precise data would be released by noon on May 12, the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
Some of the uncertainly was due to the vaguely worded ballot, which asked: “Do you support the act of self-rule of the Donetsk People’s Republic?” The only answers available were “yes” and “no.”
But the votes needed not to be tallied to know the result. It was clear from the beginning and made even more apparent throughout the day, as Soviet-style tactics of ballot stuffing, manipulation and intimidation were observed at polling stations across the regions: the referendums in the so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk would pass.
Still, some weren’t quite sure what that meant. “I voted for an independent Donetsk Republic, right?” said a puzzled Olga Vasilevna, a pensioner who voted at School No. 17 in Donetsk.
Others were even less certain. Two men in their 20s who voted “yes” at a polling station inside Donetsk’s School No. 9, where 6,000 people cast ballots, according to station monitor Yuriy Kholyavkin, said they “don’t know” why they voted in the referendum.
“We will try something new,” one said, adding that he believed a “yes” vote meant greater autonomy from Kyiv, like “Crimea was before.” He said he hoped that a second vote would be held soon on joining the Russian Federation in the same manner in which Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula in March. He did not, however, have a reason for wanting to join Russia, other than “my grandmother is from Russia.”
De-facto separatist election officials say they are toying with the idea of holding a second round of referendums on joining Russia, but they are yet to come to a decision. Should they do so, they’re likely to get Putin’s blessing. In recent weeks he has voiced his desire to reintegrate “Novorossiya,” or New Russia, which includes the southeastern regions of Ukraine, into Russia.
Roman Liahin, the "Donetsk People's Republic's" central election committee head, said in one breath as the votes were tallied that the status of Donetsk Oblast will remain unchanged after the referendum here and in the next that the self-declared republic might urge the Kremlin to take it into its fold.
A dog sits near ballot boxes at a polling station near the regional government administration in Donetsk on May 11. (Photo: Kostyantyn Chernichkin)
Despite the results of the referendums, polls show that most voters in eastern Ukraine would prefer to stay a part of the country, in contrast to Crimea, where polling data showed a majority in favor of seceding.
Should a vote to join Russia occur and pass, the situation here would descend further into chaos, says Olexiy Haran, a professor of political science at Kyiv Mohyla Academy.
Even without a second vote on joining Russia, the fight for dominance here is likely to continue, he told the Kyiv Post by phone from Kyiv. “Russia will continue to use its method of provoking clashes and bloodshed, because every time there is bloodshed people could turn against Kyiv,” he said.
Besides more mayhem, what will come next for Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts “is very difficult to predict,” Haran added.
“The international community will not recognize it (the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic). Separatists do not have control of everything in the region… they control some cities, and the Kyiv government controls some cities,” he said. He’s right: The U.S. many EU countries and the Kyiv government have decried it as illegal and said they will not recognize the results.
Plausible scenarios, Haran says, could include: the regions becoming a contested zone where part is controlled by the central Ukraine government in Kyiv and part by separatists; Moscow fomenting further unrest that leads to bloodshed in order to justify sending in Russian soldiers as "peacekeepers" under the guise of needing to protect ethnic Russians and there Russian-speaking population.
With deadly violence plaguing the region, people here have appealed to Putin to send them. So far, tens of thousands of Russian solders have remained massed on the border, carrying out military exercises from time to time, but have not crossed over. Russian aircraft, though, have violated Ukrainian airspace several times.
There have been several reports and captures of Russian spies on the territory of Ukraine, according to the Security Service of Ukraine. They have been caught with weapons, explosives and over the weekend in Sloviansk boxes with thousands of secession ballots pre-marked with “yes.”
Timothy Ash, an analyst with Standard Bank in London, is also trying to figure out what comes next.
"Notwithstanding the debate about the fairness and accuracy of the weekend votes, the fact is that a substantial section of the populations in Luhansk and Donetsk are no longer willing to take orders from Kyiv, and appear vent on going down a course to independence/secession, and are willing to use force to achieve their aims. It also seems apparent that Moscow is more than willing to support them as they move further in this direction. All told this makes for a near impossible situation for the government in Kyiv to manage, and undermines an already fractured domestic political scene," Ash wrote on May 12.
"All eyes this morning will be on Moscow and how it plays the aftermath of these two votes in Donetsk and Luhansk. I would guess that Moscow might hold up the suggestion of not recognizing the votes, and not pushing for annexation as per the Crimean model, if the authorities in Kyiv agree not to hold the presidential election on May 25. Such an offer is likely to be unacceptable to Kyiv and the United States and European Union as the presidential election vote is key to ensuring that the government in Kyiv is seen to be legitimate," Ash said.
Fresh violence breaks out amid secession vote, at least one dead
As the votes were being tallied, news came in from Krasnoarmiisk, a city that sits on the western edge of Donetsk Oblast, that at least one person had been killed and another wounded by bullets fired from the automatic weapons of armed men who did not clearly identify themselves. An Associated Press photographer who witnessed the shooting reported seeing two people lying lifeless on the ground, the news agency said.
The separatist leader Denis Pushilin was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying there were an unspecified number of deaths.
At least one was killed in a shooting in Krasnoarmiisk on May 11.
The armed men reportedly began shooting into the air when the crowd became aggressive after the military unit closed the polling station inside the city’s town hall. The details of the incident remained murky on May 12, but videos published on YouTube appear to show one man, shot in the leg, attempting to grab a Kalashnikov rifle from the hands of an armed man, who reacts by firing several rounds toward the ground as another Guardsman empties a clip into the air.
The spark of violence threatens to intensify a situation that has already spun out of control and pushed Ukraine to the brink of civil war.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.